Hail, loyal subjects! Your faithful arbiter of Mardi Gras merriment, Rex Duke™, returns to pronounce Carnival 2015 a celebration for the ages.
This season saw parading debuts from two new krewes — Femme Fatale and Athena. Meanwhile, the Krewe of Muses presented a funny "growing pains" theme, and the old-line Krewe of Proteus reprised a classic parade from 1896. It was a good year for pageantry as well, as evidenced by the opulent parades put forth by the krewes of Hermes and Orpheus. As always, there was sharp satire from Le Krewe d'Etat and Chaos, and less conventional krewes are becoming a bigger part of the parade calendar.
All in all, I am happy to report that 2015 gave my subjects a full and festive Carnival season. Below are my notes from the parades I was able to attend in Orleans and Jefferson parishes. Until next year, adieu!
Parades are arranged by score (and alphabetically within each rating). All parades receiving three crowns or more are reviewed here. For complete Rex Duke reviews, visit www.bestofneworleans.com.
Hermes' The Ballets Russes was a brilliantly colored, wonderfully animated procession of the perhaps not so commonly known early 20th-century, Russian-led Parisian ballet company, a producer of landmark and sometimes scandalous works. While there was one delicately crafted ballerina figure, much of the theme focused on the rich artistic epoch with vibrant figures such as the nearly naked man on The Rites of Spring float, the colorful cubist figure on Picasso's Parade, and the Blue God, with his intense brow and golden corkscrewed beard. The parade also included the subtly erotic figure from Afternoon of the Faun, and the severed head of John the Baptist on the Salome float added a touch of horror. It was a beautifully executed theme, and floats were adorned with Russian imagery and pretty paper flowers and other pieces. The parade also featured something new in costuming, rider tunics featured lighted H's on the chests (though not all of them seemed to work). There were many bands and throwing was generous. The historic theme was vibrantly executed and also full of engaging nuance. Bravo.
Heavy rain may have kept many from viewing one of Carnival's most gorgeous parades, but Rex Duke is pleased to have caught it before the downpour commenced. Orpheus is known for the abundance of 3-D flowers on the walls of its floats and they very nicely complemented its naturalist theme, The Magic of an Ordinary Day. Standout floats included the cherry blossom motif on The Awakening of Flowers float which had a sculpture of a woman in a kimono, a tree full of magenta-lighted cherry blossoms and white paper flowers throughout. The Dance of the Butterflies was covered in black and orange monarch butterflies. Other lushly decorated floats included The Pleasures of the Table and The Jeweled Candles of the Night. The lighting on the multi-trailer Leviathan float was refurbished and more brilliant than ever. The throws were abundant and the lineup of bands included Talladega College and Alcorn State University. The only thing missing was Harry Connick Jr. (who tweeted about missing the parade). Mayor Mitch Landrieu was listed as riding alongside celebrity guest Ron White, but he joined the parade at Gallier Hall (after greeting Rex and King Zulu at Spanish Plaza — Orpheus paraded an hour earlier than originally scheduled due to inclement weather). The exquisite floats were a spectacle unto themselves, and the superkrewe delivered a very traditional style of parade.
Perhaps the frequent delays that marred the Bacchus parade were meant to build suspense, but the theme of Children's Stories That Live Forever was compelling by itself. The mix of old and new tales ranged from Aesop's fables to Where the Wild Things Are and Harry Potter — a float that featured riders costumed in Potter robes. Riders on the Winnie the Pooh float dressed as bumble bees. Other whimsical floats included The Cat in the Hat and Shrek. Throws were plentiful and also matched the childhood theme with coloring books and sidewalk chalk. Adults could enjoy lighted drinking horns. The procession featured a stunning array of marching bands, including those of Southern and Tulane universities, Greenville High School and the Roots of Music band.
With Friday the 13th falling on the parade calendar, many krewes gravitated to horror themes. More about superstitions, Frid'Etat the 13th distinguished itself from the pack with a mostly very clever spree of topical floats. The New Orleans Saints float (Never Open an Umbrella Indoors) was updated at the last minute to include the Benson family feud, and the fabrications of NBC news anchor Brian Williams landed him on the Scream Queens float alongside tabloid-esque babblers such as Nancy Grace. Fun and biting floats also included the risque Invasion of the Body Snatchers float about leaked celebrity nude photos, The Dr. Huxtable and Mr. Hyde float showing the dark side of Bill Cosby's recent scandals, and Night of the Living Hipsters, which lampooned Bywater gentrification. The Dictator's Dancing Dawlins costumed as North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and were followed by a float dedicated to him. Also of note, are the krewe's two new signature floats, particularly the pretty Dictator's Navy ship. All around, it was a coup.
Travel themes are not uncommon in Carnival parades, but Endymion's Fantastic Voyages focused on the grandest of travel rewards: the search for knowledge, wisdom and discovery (Christopher Columbus, space, Charles Darwin's travels), enlightenment (mythical, literary and spiritual) and conquest (Cortez in Mexico, Alexander the Great). Some costumes matched float themes, such as the riders on Peary's Journey to the North Pole outfitted with polar bear caps. The krewe also introduced Carnival's biggest selfie, with a massive video screen projecting images of the crowd as it passed. The procession included the bands of Talladega College, St. Augustine High School, McDonogh 35 College Prep High School and Eleanor McMain Secondary School. The many and varied throws included krewe footballs, stuffed animals, beach balls, lighted batons and much more.
The Krewe of Muses added an uncommon twist in Carnival and satirical themes. There was a note of self-deprecation in its homage to teenage social habits and growing pains (Hairy Situations was a funny take on puberty). But the theme Are You There, God? It's Us, Muses also cleverly skewered an array of issues, including the cluster of shops on Magazine Street in the float Mall Rats. The Peer Pressure float mocked Gov. Bobby Jindal's desperate political maneuvering, and riders wore lighted dunce caps. Costumes and headdresses nicely complemented many float concepts. One group wore headdresses with padded bras on the Padding float. The theme had an original focus and perspective and was well executed throughout the theme floats. The procession also included many fine bands (St. Augustine's Marching 100, Helen Cox High School, Cohen College Prep), marching groups and special throws (signature hand-decorated shoes, glowing rings, gold temporary tattoos, plush pillows, glittery Muses journals).
Proteus reprised its 1896 theme, Nature of the Beasts, to brilliant effect. Floats were festooned with varied paper flowers, including cattails, calla lilies and even cornstalks. An egret whimsically fished at the front of one float, and an elephant's arcing trunk graced a tea party on a float with pretty roses. The impressive band lineup featured Concordia College, Warren Easton Charter High School, Roots of Music and a Marine Corps band. Proteus isn't the heaviest throwing parade (though some recipients liked its slap bracelet-like koozies), but that may help call attention to the history of Carnival and the era when people went to parades for their pageantry, not trinkets. Rex Duke could quibble about some inconsistency with the number of flowers and relative lack of ornamentation mounted on some floats, but it was only a few, and the flowers there were still lovely.
Though they don't have the reputation of Zulu coconuts and Muses shoes, Rex's array of float-specific throws have become some of the most coveted items at Carnival, including medallion beads and pillows and more. While its floats are always brilliantly painted and rendered, this year's history lesson in early American wars and battles wasn't as dynamic as the visual and intellectual wonders of recent years' themes about Gods of All Ages (2014) and All Creatures Great and Small (2013). The war theme was centered on the bicentennial of the Battle of New Orleans and it was reverent throughout. The band had several military bands as well as local (Tulane University, St. Augustine's Marching 100) and visiting (South Lafourche) high schools and they played enthusiastically. Riders braved Fat Tuesday's cold spell in their appropriate costumes and threw generously.
The Knights of Babylon stood out for celebrating the krewe's history in a beautiful parade exploring Babylonian myth and its ancient pantheon. Floats were mounted with figures including golden-winged Nabu, green and golden horned Baal and the purple dragon Lakmu. Costumes often accentuated individual float subjects, such as the amusing water buffalo hats on the riders of the Marduk float. Lakmu riders wore golden-crested dragon heads. The procession featured a dozen marching bands and Archbishop Rummel, De La Salle and St. Mary's Dominican high schools stood out. Paradegoers also liked the krewe's 3-D image cups.
With a sign that read "Je suis Charlie," referencing the attack on the French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo, which left a dozen people dead, Chaos carried the banner for free speech with an appropriately unbridled series of topical jabs. The theme Just Say N.O. frequently addressed local issues, such as "N.O. P.D.," taking the police to task for recent crime problems, and the N.O. Brainer float about Sen. Mary Landrieu taking a bong-style hit off the "Keystoned Pipeline." Other floats took on national subjects, such as N.O. Way Jose, referencing immigration issues. There were solid band performances by Langston Hughes Academy, KIPP Central City Academy and Roots of Music. Throws were varied and generous with plush toys, wine bags and lighted swords among the krewe's standout items.
The krewe let spectators know what's up at the Audubon Zoo, with the theme They All Asked for You. Floats featured animals in the krewe's signature foil and titles teased with clever phrases. Working for Peanuts heralded elephants. The lion float was titled It's Good to Be King. Impressive designs included a shark flying out of water. The lineup of marching bands included St. Augustine's Marching 100, St. Mary's Academy and Dudley High School from North Carolina.
The Krewe of Nyx has grown quickly, and its Elvis Presley theme seemed to be an appropriate celebration of excess. There were more than 30 floats, most depicting Elvis hits. One of the prettiest ones was titled Blue Hawaii and featured a hula girl and tiki drink figures and tropical flowers painted throughout. Rider costume elements often matched float themes, such as veils for the Crying in the Chapel float, and blue records on hats on riders of the Blue Suede Shoes float. Though brightly painted, many floats could use some ornamentation to break up the flat surfaces. Throws, however, were bursting everywhere, and among the theme-related ones were pink fuzzy dice and inflatable guitars. The procession also featured 15 marching bands and many walking groups, such as the 610 Stompers, the Sirens and the krewe's own Nyxettes.
Thoth knows how to use a turn of phrase. Its theme illustrated popular sayings and gave some familiar ones a local spin, such as borrowing from Las Vegas with "What happens in New Orleans, stays in New Orleans." Other idioms included "Don't cry over spilt milk," and the float featured milk cartons and cows. Other fun floats included Have Your Cake and Eat it Too and happy hour mantra It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere. The Langston Hughes Academy marching band stood out among the many bands. Popular throws included hula hoops, stuffed pink monkeys and throwing discs with the New Orleans water meter design on them.
Tucks lets it all hang out in a fun, guy's guy way — with toilet humor, weed jokes and the rocking Funky Tucks float. A krewe could do a lot or a little with a superhero theme, and Tucks made the most of it. Floats carried more and less conventional heroes, including Catwoman and Captain Underpants, and it helped that costumes (with masks and padded muscles) frequently matched the superhero figures. Some of the superheroes were satirical jabs, such as Piyoush (sic) the Boy Wonder and convicted felon and former mayor C. Ray Nagin as Chocolate Thunder. There was a bit of a feminine touch on the queen's float with riders dressed as Cupid. And the procession included the Carnival group most suited to the krewe, the Laissez Boys, riding motorized reclining chairs. Signature throws were plentiful, including decorated toilet plungers, toilet paper and squirting toilets.
The Zulu parade manages to unite two distinct strains of Carnival: there are exquisitely costumed and presented royalty and "characters" (Big Shot, Witch Doctor) and there's a let-it-all-hang out irreverent spirit spread over the procession's more than 40 floats. The theme (Zulu Salutes its Founding Fathers) wasn't particularly evident on many floats (Storyland, Disney's California Adventure, Casino, Headless Horseman), but the spirit of Zulu was. Besides coconuts, there were Zulu mini-umbrellas, stuffed monkeys, decorated lingerie and all sorts of krewe emblem beads.
The Krewe of Alla is showing renewed focus in its move to the East Bank, but one thing it has always done well is fill its parade with marching bands. The procession featured 24 bands, four more than it had floats. Noticeable performances were put in by the U.S. Marine Corps band, St. Augustine's Marching 100, L.B. Landry–O.P. Walker High School, Warren Easton, Edna Karr High School, Chalmette High School and Belle Chasse High School. The lineup also included the Ygnacio Valley High School band from Concord, California. Titled Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the patriotic parade celebrated the armed forces, though it primarily featured World War II-era figures and images. The Founding Fathers float had nicely painted portraits on it. Throws were generous and riders were almost uniformly masked.
Caesar has long been the standard-bearer on the Metairie parade route. While its Broadway on Parade theme was well executed, that's not the most original theme in Carnival. Some neon trim helped light floats, and some standout floats featured Wicked, Mary Poppins, Chicago, Cats and Aladdin. Of course, its signature Hydra float always is an impressive sight. The royalty and maids wore impressive headpieces and collars. Many paradegoers enjoyed seeing the Marvel Comics' Spider-Man and Iron Man at the beginning of the parade. There were more than 10 bands, among them Slidell High School and De La Salle High School, which in an instance of harmonic convergence, both played the White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army."
The theme A Night at the Opera is not a unique theme in Carnival, but Carrollton made the most of it, and finished it with a reference to the Looney Tunes cartoon What's Opera, Doc?. Well-done floats included the Egyptian-themed Aida float and pirate riggings of The Pirates of Penzance and The Flying Dutchman. Rider costumes nicely matched themes on the pirate floats, and the What's Opera, Doc? riders wore Bugs Bunny ears and Valkyrie helmets. Archbishop Rummel and St. Paul's School bands turned in impressive performances. Prized throws included purple bags of Chee Wees and glitter-covered boots.
The Krewe of Cleopatra chose a theme based on frightening things, which was not uncommon this Carnival. Members did a nice job of making float themes and costumes match. Riders on the Skeleton float wore skull head boppers and riders on the Evil Clowns float wore large polka dot clown ties. The krewe's signature floats, with hieroglyphics and Nile river boat designs, are all nicely detailed. The procession's 18 marching bands including St. Augustine's Marching 100, Edna Karr, Eleanor McMain, Archbishop Shaw, L.W. Higgins High School and Miller-McCoy Academy.
The Krewe of Iris likes to party, and there were many fun examples on floats celebrating a prom, a bachelorette party, a sorority party and Cinco de Mayo. Riders' costumes didn't often match float themes, but big neon-colored wigs were festive. Among the procession's many bands were McDonogh City Park and the students from Mary D. Coghill Elementary School. Rex Duke didn't get his hands on a new pair of sunglasses, but coveted throws included pink Iris bags, rainbow glow rings, stuffed strawberries and stuffed hearts for Valentine's Day.
The Spectrum of Emotions theme generally strove to make abstract concepts concrete. Creativity isn't an emotion, but the float with Harold and the Purple Crayon was nonetheless impressive and illustrated the concept. Fine marching band performances were turned in by Landry-Walker and Warren Easton. One of the prized throws was the stuffed Pygmammoth, named for the krewe's signature float.
On its 80th anniversary, Choctaw celebrated the way many krewes note major anniversaries — by using notable past years' parades as float themes. Choctaw's retrospective highlighted Moonlight on the Ganges and Movie Magic and Madness from the 1970s and Pioneer Days from the 1950s. The anniversary is commendable, but such disparate themes can seem loose as a concept. But the royalty's krewe-themed Native American headdresses and costumes were impressive and perhaps the best reminder of the group's contribution to Carnival. The marching band lineup featured St. Augustine's Marching 100, South Plaquemines High School and Harriet Tubman Charter school's band. Plush tomahawks, wooden nickels and spears were popular throws.
The Knights of Excalibur did its best to make paradegoers feel like kids in a candy store, though the Knights' Sweet Delights were not limited to candy. Floats depicted cupcakes, lollipops, snowballs and chocolate. Satiny rider costumes shimmered like candy wrappers and generally matched float themes. The maids also wore impressive headpieces that added Soda Factory and Valentines to the sugar rush. Prized throws included lighted beads, swords and bracelets. Brother Martin High School's marching band lit its drums, adding extra flair.
The Knights of King Arthur personalized a far-flung destinations theme by painting postmarks with names and messages on the floats. An Alaska-themed float snarkily referenced former Gov. Sarah Palin on its postcard. Some messages seemed to be inside jokes for the krewe. Costumes sometimes matched floats, such as the gator hats on the Everglades float and Uncle Sam hats on the White House float. Lake Area New Tech and Sophie B. Wright Charter Schools' marching bands stood out. Throws were plentiful and popular items included swords, horns and throwing discs in many sizes.
Because the parade fell on Friday the 13th, Morpheus opted for a horror theme. Clever titles matched with monsters included Ain't Dere No More with the Headless Horseman, On Pins and Needles with a voodoo doll and Wanna Play with Child's Play's Chucky and Tiffany, the Bride of Chucky. The band lineup included Belle Chasse High School, Algiers Technology Academy, Stratford High School from Nashville, Tennessee and Towers High School from Decatur, Georgia. Riders were generous with beads and plush throws.
As the only parade in Algiers, N.O.M.T.O.C. gives paradegoers a good reason to spend the morning in the neighborhood, and its theme reminisced about popular spots such as Weilman's Bakery, Rainey's Restaurant & Lounge, Clement's Snowballs & Po-boys, J & J's Bar & Grill and Calderone Pharmacy. Former WDSU-TV anchor Norman Robinson served as grand marshal. The roster of 10 bands included visitors Shaw High School from East Cleveland, Ohio, and Towers High School from Decatur, Georgia. Throws were varied and included beach balls and all sorts of stuffed animals.
On its 40th anniversary, the Krewe of Pontchartrain celebrated Lakefront landmarks with floats depicting the Bali Ha'i restaurant, the lighthouse, Hayne Boulevard seafood joints, the Zephyr roller coaster and Pontchartrain Beach. Cups marking the anniversary were plentiful and riders also distributed doubloons and bouncy balls. Notable bands included Miller-McCoy, KIPP Central Academy and McDonogh City Park.
Below three crowns
With four of Adonis' 14 floats carrying royalty, there wasn't too much space to illustrate the theme Short and Sweet, but that seemed apt. Nicely decorated floats were the king cake float with the confections painted on the side and the Christmas Candy float with candy canes and Santa elves. (Sweets of the Knight seemed to belong in the Excalibur parade.) Costumes featured flamenco-style sleeved tunics and fez-style hats, but riders on the same float often didn't match. Marching bands included Langston Hughes Academy, Helen Cox High School and W.J. Fischer Accelerated Academy.
Argus' Super Heroes theme was only illustrated by the krewe's maids' headresses. That is simply inadequate attention to a theme, and coupled with commercial floats (Popeyes, Coca-Cola, the upcoming film Minions), it's just not in line with Carnival tradition. While the marching bands from East Jefferson and West Jefferson high schools were impressive, the parade needs a few more bands. But riders are to be commended for being generous with cups, throwing discs and other throws.
The Krewe of Athena debuted with an original theme: The First of Many. Floats depicted a First Kiss, First Birthday and First Day of School. Oddly, the My First Rodeo float appeared to feature Sheriff Harry Lee's head. The marching band lineup included Landry-Walker, Alice M. Harte Charter School and Roots of Music. Throws were plentiful though signature fedoras were hard to come by. Also prized were individual float medallion beads. The krewe's debut creates on a big Friday night on the Metairie parade route, and the krewe is off to a good start.
The krewe presented a roller coaster ride of emotions. Many floats featured fine detail work, including the swan figure on the Seduction float and the painting of an old miser counting his money on the greed float. Other floats in Centurions World of Emotions theme included passion, rage, courage, love and curiosity. Riders wore Centurions' classic Roman century garb and generally looked sharp. The procession could use a few more bands, but throws were generous, including lighted items.
The theme Druids' Dilemmas featured some entertaining and edgy floats. The choice "Muses or Nyx" was on a tandem float, respectively mounted with a giant pink shoe and a giant pink purse. The "Paper or Plastic" float featured a two-headed figure with a paper "Aints" bag over one head and a plastic bag for suffocation over the other. But other floats seemed to be both conveniently vague and inappropriate, such as a choice between Pontchartrain Beach and Lincoln Beach, a distinction largely about racial segregation. The "EBT Card or Job" float also was dismaying. It suggested the captain of Nyx, Julie Lea, is on public assistance, and nothing about the float was amusing. Those floats overshadowed the entire parade. Several local bands marched, including Chalmette High School, Sophie B. Wright Charter School and Cabrini High School, but the parade needs more bands. It also threw lightly.
The krewe made a boisterous splash onto the parade route and was generous with its signature throw, compacts — many hand-decorated. The krewe's royalty wore pretty feathered headdresses and costumes were good. The Treme Babydolls marched in the parade, including Tee Eva, whose pie shop is located at the beginning of the route. The Hollywood Horrors theme provided some eye-catching figures on floats, but some titles seemed odd. Equating "enchantresses" with witches was amusing, but the float with the matriarchal monster from Alien was on a float titled "Sultry Seductress." The krewe moved up its planned parading debut by one year, and though it's a busy day of parading, it had just six marching bands.
In its second year, Freret may be shaping up to be the Tucks of the first weekend of parades. It had fun with toilet humor in its Sophomore Shenanigans parade. A float with an elaborate mousetrap was titled Who Cut the Cheese?. Dare Rex Duke ask what it means when a Superman figure replaces the "S" on his chest with a "P"? But sticking to what Rex Duke does know: the parade could use a few more marching bands, though it did include a couple of brass bands; and given that the krewe makes hand-decorated masks, it's odd that so many riders shed their masks. In its favor, the krewe was very generous with throws. It'll be fun to watch this young group continue to develop.
The Music of the Night theme celebrated popular operas, including The Magic Flute, Carmen, Rigoletto, La Traviata, The Flying Dutchman and Turandot. Floats typically featured a key figure to represent each opera but were not painted throughout with the float theme. Lively costumes featured wigs and decorative tunics. Among the marching bands were those from Grace King High School, East Feliciana High School and the Kenner Parks & Recreation band. The LaPlace Elementary School band had to be one of the youngest bands in Carnival. Hand-decorated flip-flops were a coveted rarity, It was easier to catch blinking pink tiaras, pink-lighted fish-shaped orbs, plush wands, red hearts and more.
The Corps of Napoleon presented a rogues' gallery of History's Villains, including Attila the Hun and Al Capone. The Saints Super Fans were more warmly received as grand marshals. Costumes didn't always match float themes, though some better ones were pirate and cowboy outfits — and there were some floats in which riders substituted T-shirts for jumpsuits. There were several visiting bands from Baton Rouge and elsewhere. The parade also suffered an odd interruption when two riders were removed from a float for tossing urine sample cups to the crowd.
A celebration of kings seems ripe for Carnival, but the theme lacked standout surprises. There were floats celebrating Elvis, King Midas and king crabs, and there was some coordination to match costumes to floats. Riders threw a resepectable quantity of beads but one float had a sign reading "Blue doubloons – this float only" and it seemed to highlight scarcity. Another couple bands wouldn't have hurt the parade, but James A. Singleton Charter School and McDonogh City Park Academy performed well.
There were lovely highlights in the Oshun parade, including a nicely attired king (known as Shango) and king float and tall feathered collars on many of the group's "Goddesses." One of the issues that marred the procession was its unevenness. Some floats were loaded with riders and throws, and some were much more sparse. One float's riders didn't share the same costumes. There isn't a great effort to match theme floats' props and paint jobs. But WWL-TV's Sheba Turk, surrounded by several Elvi, was a popular guest rider. As usual, St. Mary's Academy marching band looked sharp leading the parade.
Sparta's in the Mood parade referenced some wonderful songs and composers (Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller), but musical themes are common in parades and the floats sometimes stretched wordplay to make connections, such as fast cars and fascinating women for the song "You're Driving Me Crazy." What was undeniably popular were the Spartan helmets that children along the route quickly donned, and riders were generous with throws.